Naturalistic Planting is anything but, by Michael King

April 24, 2012

in Articles, General Interest

There has been a great deal of animated discussion recently about what a ‘meadow’ is in a garden context and I think this is a subject well worth clarifying a little better. It is clearly related in people’s minds to prairie planting, naturalistic planting, perennial planting and perhaps other confusing terms.

Michael King, co-author with Piet Oudolf of one of my best, falling to bits, reference books on grasses, Gardening with Grasses,  has kindly offered a challenging piece on this topic to thinkingardens.

Anne Wareham, editor

1. Trentham copyright Michael King

Michael King:

If there is one word that has crept into gardening lingo in the past decade that really gets under my skin, it is the term naturalistic planting. For one thing it seems to mean different things to different people and the other irritation is that always we are looking at something totally unnatural.

What is natural, after all, when there is hardly anywhere on earth that has not been affected by the activities of the human race? Gardens are contrived to embellish our living spaces, to offer somewhere to relax or simply serve to impress as a spectacle. In truth ,the last thing we want is something that is really natural with all the chaos, disorder, death and disease that that would involve.

The style of planting, predominantly perennial planting, that is popular today, looks very different to what would have been seen in gardens only some ten or fifteen years ago. The term naturalistic is frequently applied to it and in an attempt to understand what this refers to we need to understand the intrinsic features that set it apart.

Three things distinguish contemporary planting schemes from what came before: content, form and intention. Let’s run through these quickly to see what these three characteristics bring to our new-look schemes and perhaps try and find a better way of naming them.

Image2 Park Planting, Germany copyright Michael King

The content of, so-called, naturalistic schemes arises through research that took place in Germany in the middle of the previous century. In essence, the aim was to find a system for using perennial plants effectively and efficiently in public green spaces. Carefully chosen, such plants would create attractive, natural looking, ground cover under trees, along road verges and within parks and public gardens. Maintenance needed to be simple and cost effective and that meant that only the easiest and toughest plants could be used.

The story is more complex than this, but underpinning the approach was the doctrine of planting the right plants in the right place without altering the existing growing conditions. Instead of using garden cultivars of popular perennials, the wild species were evaluated and selected to create a new aesthetic. Plants with similar competitive strengths were then combined into robust, harmonious planting schemes.

Today’s perennial schemes follow this same principle, although the plant assortment has grown to include more colourful perennials, yet still close to the forms and vigour of their wilder relatives.

3. Hermannshof copyright Michael King


The form of contemporary perennial schemes differs greatly from that of the traditional herbaceous plant borders and is, in fact, closely related to their raison d’être. Traditional herbaceous borders are set against a plain background, such as a yew hedge, and approached across a smooth mown lawn. They are created as focal points within a garden design and viewed from outside just like a painting or tableau. They are pure decoration and deliberately artificial. In heavily manured and deeply dug soil, a diverse range of perennials are brought together and arranged by height and colour to create a showstopping spectacle. They demonstrate the skill of the gardener, require regular replanting and adjustment not to mention meticulous staking, feeding and watering to remain looking good. Typically, their season is mid to late summer with little to offer before or after, unless of course they are compromised to becoming mixed borders with the addition of spring flowering shrubs and bulbs. All of this sets traditional herbaceous borders apart from today’s desire for naturalism.

4. Lurie Garden copyright Michael King

The intention of today’s schemes is to make an emotional connection with those things we consider natural. We call them naturalistic because we want to experience the freedom of the open field, or meadow, or prairie that is far removed from our urban existence. By using a more wild looking assortment of plants and arranging them in sweeping drifts and intertwined mixes, we seek to emulate the feeling of spontaneous nature within the confines of our back gardens and local parks.

To enhance the experience we no longer view our planting schemes from outside, but rather need to enter into them to feel surrounded by the field of flowers. Their scale is therefore larger, filling their garden spaces, perhaps replacing a central lawn with wide areas of perennials crisscrossed by a network of paths.

Regular or informal in outline, the new trend is for an association with nature to be created no matter how artificial the setting.

5 Lurie Garden copyright Michael King

The Lurie Garden in downtown Chicago is a case in point. This small park is nothing more than a roof garden above an underground car park. The idea is to make an emotional connection with the once extensive grass prairies of mid America by growing wide drifts of native Panicum grasses and flowering perennials such as Agastache, Eryngium and Echinacea. However, the intention is not to recreate a prairie, only the idea. Public parks need to be colourful so drifts of european salvias and onions as well as oriental daylilies are needed to make a satisfying picture.

These naturalistic schemes are no more natural than the herbaceous borders they have replaced, but they can be engaging and satisfying, when well executed, as might be any form of contemporary art. What is needed is a more honest term to use when talking about them.

Mixed perennial plantings” says nothing about the individual plants that they contain nor the associations they may attempt to make, but does more accurately describe the new style of perennial planting we are increasingly exposed to. The other term we hear a lot is “prairie planting schemes’ but these are rarely true to their namesake as they invariably contain a diverse assortment of plants from many different countries, even continents; just one example will make my point here – the ubiquitous Miscanthus sinensis grasses

Lianne Siegrassen copyright Michael King

I have been using the term “perennial meadows” for some time to describe my own take on naturalism. By meadow I mean grasses, mixed with perennial flowers, on a domestic scale – as to me meadows are man-made habitats albeit open, informal and associated with the countryside beyond my city boundary.

The labels we apply to what we do are often no more than marketing terms to promote our practice and I am no better than anyone else in this respect. The one term that really should not be applied to current trends in planting design is “new” as no sooner is it applied than it becomes redundant; some examples of the “New American Garden” are nearly thirty years old.

The current style of perennial planting is nothing more than a response to what came before it and an affirmation of good practice in contemporary thinking: respect for nature, low in environmental impact, wildlife friendly, eco….. The one thing these schemes are not is natural but they can bring us close to the idea which is really all that they are about. Let’s enjoy them for what they are and not try and make them sound more important than their reality.

Michael King website

Michael King, portrait


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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken Lockwood January 9, 2016 at 6:34 am

Indulgent, not a pretty word I know, but I’ve come to think that any outside space I contrive to take my leisure in aught not simply be for me to inhabit, such would be indulgent. No, with so few ‘natural’ habitats left for fauna, neither in cities nor in the country, where I have both chance to live and ‘garden’, I feel my ‘naturalistic’ attempts, which basically means keeping the efforts of the sole gardener within limits, must overwhelmingly be for the benifit of others, the wildlife. Oh to have begun earlier, to have had the where-with-all and energy of a Pam Lewis and her husband perchance. So to cut to the quick, my lawn, starved of goodness, will have many a seed sown, pot raised bee butterfly hoveryloving plant dug in. There will be blobs of them, and if they don’t come up to scratch, nectary bee wise, despatched hence.

Reply June 28, 2014 at 11:15 pm

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is excellent blog. A fantastic read. I’ll certainly be back.


Rebecca Lindenmeyr February 22, 2014 at 3:32 pm

This is such a dynamic discussion full of all kinds of juicy bits, especially Thomas and James’ concept of nostalgia and emotion. My own response was long winded (and probably not as eloquent) – so I wrote a blog post –
It’s simplified a bit to carry through to a more general audience, but thought I’d add my own 2 silly cents.


Michael King May 4, 2012 at 10:08 am

Every comment following this post has been useful and taken me a lot further than a simple musing over the rights and wrongs of using the term “naturalistic planting”.

As has been pointed out, the term has relevance and meaning to contemporary trends in planting design, however, it is frequently misappropriated to infer, certainly in the minds of the general public, something that it clearly is not. It is for this reason I still feel uncomfortable with its loose application to an approach to landscape design and garden creation that I have long admired and promoted.

Perhaps labels are less important than understanding the fundamentals of contemporary trends in planting design which offer the possibility of going much further than simple decoration. However, I do worry that the powerful associations attached to perennial plants (in particular) being used, can sometimes obscure the more meaningful ideas being explored by the artist/designer in their work.


James Golden May 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm


You certainly strike a nerve when you say “These naturalistic schemes are no more natural than the herbaceous borders they have replaced … What is needed is a more honest term to use when talking about them.” You’ve recognized dishonesty and called it out.

I think I’m in complete agreement with most of what you write, except for the prohibition on the use of the word “naturalistic.” The word is not dishonest just because ignorant people, intoxicated by visions of saving the world, repairing damaged ecologies, or making the world “sustainable” have been misled by capitalistic expropriation of valid concepts and language. As with everything in our world today, market forces turn promising ideas into mere commodities to be manipulated, usually dishonestly, and sold. The “naturalistic” usage has a long and varied history. Thomas Dreiser’s novels, written at the beginning of the twentieth century, were called naturalistic because they portrayed life of common people gripped by the “natural” forces of situation and living out lives shaped by determinism. Over the ages, calls for a return to nature have been used to turn from old to new ideas (for example, the vast change in views of nature held in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods). “Naturalistic” remains a useful, appropriate—and honest—word that accurately describes the current “perennial style,” if we don’t give it up to those who misuse it.

I do agree with you on the substantive matters of your essay. Gardens are artificial, they are contrived, they are not natural at all, though they do work on natural principles, and are designed (or should be) with understanding of plants, their needs, their competitive characteristics and strategies. They do not recreate nature, but I do think that a garden or any green space in a highly urbanized area can be an ecological plus simply because green spaces provide many benefits that asphalt and concrete do not.

One important idea you don’t appear to address fully—perhaps because it’s not your main subject—is raised in Thomas Rainer’s reply to you; he writes “Beauty is intimately connected with loss, transience, and the ephemeral.” Being of a neo-romantic disposition, I tend to agree with Rainer. The beauty of these “naturalistic” gardens is, at least partly, in the emotions they evoke. I do not disregard the role of aesthetic design—a subject far too large to address here—but simply make a plea for the role of emotion in all its varied forms in our relationship with the garden. While a sense of transience and loss is a potent well of emotion, I’d go further than Rainer in saying an even broader range of emotions is involved, and we are in need of a thorough, thoughtful, reasoned exploration of the importance of emotions in understanding our response to these “naturalistic” gardens, in fact, to all gardens.


Michael King May 4, 2012 at 9:40 am

Your points are extremely well made and have given me a great deal of thought. I have often used the terms mood and atmosphere, somewhat interchangeably, when writing about the potential of gardens as a form of artistic expression. The source of our emotional responses to stimulating gardens is varied and highly personal. Associations are, I believe, the key. Sometimes it is an association we, as onlooker, make with things that have meaning for us as individuals, be these actual or imagined. Equally, the associations may be triggered by the manner the designer/artist pulls together the elements of their creation. Either way, I know from experience that great gardens can trigger very powerful emotions and this would be something well worth considering in more depth.


Michael King May 2, 2012 at 10:11 am

Thomas Rainer’s suggestion that ” … great planting design is nostalgic. It evokes a memory or feeling of a larger natural space” disturbs me. I do believe that any art cannot exist in a vacuum and is a reaction to both the past and present; however, it also needs to look to the future. The associations a garden space evokes with the wilderness beyond the garden fence can, and indeed should, serve as a metaphor for many things.
The discomfort I feel with the use of the term naturalistic when applied to today’s perennial planting schemes stems not so much from semantics or labels, but rather honesty. The term implies something better, truer and worthy; better than what came before, true to nature, and more desirable with positive environmental benefits.
Gardens are surely nothing more than recreational spaces to allow us to escape, relax and to dream. Through associations they can become elevated to art, but let us not imply that this current trend should be encouraged because of the positive contribution it makes to nature, the environment and the wellbeing of mankind. There is something of an evangelical fervour that some commentators seem to attach to this so-called planting trend.
Could it be that the current obsession with perennial plants with their wild, loose nature, inevitably triggers nostalgic associations? If true this would exclude the potential for any real artistic expression which I sincerely believe is not the case.


Thomas Rainer May 2, 2012 at 1:34 pm


A very interesting response. In light of your comment, I want to clarify my initial comments. My term ‘nostalgia’ was an attempt to expand upon your point about intention. By ‘nostalgia’ I do not mean that gardens should be backwards-looking. Nor was I advocating a resurrection of an outdated garden style. Gardens should speak to the zeitgeist and look to the future. What I was trying to say is thy all attempts at naturalistic planting design (use whatever word you want to call it) are an expression–in one way or another–of loss. In the past when wilderness was abundant, gardens were walled off and geometric in form, a statement against the wild. Now, I would argue, all “naturalism” has at its heart an awareness that nature and wildness are disappearing. Oudolf’s Lurie Garden is a modern, stylized version of an American prairie that now only exists in fragments. The High Line is an artful expression of an abandoned, fallow rail track that no longer exists. That is why it is nostalgic. It plays with our memory, our associations of nature or wildness. Of course, it can do this in highly, stylized, modern forms. But without that conversation with the past (be it real or perceived), without that sense of loss, modern naturalism has no meaning.

That is why inauthentic claims about naturalism being some kind of new nature, or exaggerated claims about its ecological benefits ring hollow. You are right to demand honesty from a scattered, disorganized philosophy that more often serves to brand its practitioners rather than reveal its true motives. But for me, part of being honest about naturalism is admitting that it is obsessed with some past, some idea of lost nature that it is in constant conversation with. A perennial meadow is a stylized, abstracted version of some wild space. It is connected to a memory or association of some version of nature that only exists in fragments. Beauty is intimately connected with loss, transience, and the ephemeral.


Michael King May 4, 2012 at 8:47 am

Thomas, Thank you for this carefully considered and clearly expressed response and I can fully appreciate what your personal aspirations for contemporary planting practices are. Indeed, it gives me hope for the future.
Perhaps the only point that disturbs me with what you write is the emphasis you place on loss. I can see that it is totally relevant, but I do not think that it is necessarily always the case, nor that without it modern naturalism has no meaning. When an artist makes us aware of transience and the ephemeral present in the natural world, they do not, in all cases at least, need to point to any sense of loss, by drawing our attention to it, for their message to have validity. Within nature’s cycles the ephemeral can return and the artist’s role is to draw our attention to it.
Nevertheless, it is such thoughts, aspirations and individual approaches to planting design that can elevate it from the merely decorative to a meaning art form.


Kristin Landfield May 8, 2012 at 5:50 am

Thank you Michael for requiring an honest discussion of contemporary approaches to garden design. I do agree with Thomas that there is a place for nostalgia (at least in my use of the term) in the modern garden–even in modern art–but especially in habitable spaces. Perhaps it’s better to describe it as a sense of connectedness or continuity–an awareness of our place within nature and (at least cognitively) apart from nature. I think nostalgia and modernism don’t require mutual exclusivity, as long as by nostalgia we aren’t merely preserving a decaying art with some undue reverence to the past.

I find this topic especially noteworthy living and working in the Southeastern United States, where I believe there needs to be a unique Southern vernacular for the modern landscape. The “new” perennial movement is still somewhat new here (!). The South drips with nostalgia, much of which is a handicap for forward-thinking; both this kind of lugubrious nostalgia and extreme naturalism are in opposition to the thoughtful contemporary landscape. Naturalism here would likely mean an old-growth hardwood forest or a steamy wetland–neither are apropos for inhabited spaces. I realize this is a little off-topic, but I think that when designing a garden/landscape, understanding our human instincts alongside the practical use and cultural requirements for plants can yield something at once fresh and nostalgic/connected/intentional. We are changing, and so are the habitats around us. What satisfies our yearnings changes, but the fact that we have these yearnings–that we grapple with our place in the natural order–that gardens enact this tension–those things remain.


Thomas Rainer May 1, 2012 at 5:58 pm

The point about intention–that is, the desire to make an emotional connection with something we consider natural–is the most important. Yes, yes, naturalism is not natural. Any musing on the meaning of “natural” inevitably results in some circular musings about whether anything is natural at all, Are we a part of nature or are we outside of it . . . I don’t know or care. But I do very much appreciate Michael’s attempt to define the characteristics of modern naturalism. And those are pretty much right on the money. The most relevent and significant contribution–in my mind at least–is what Michael describes as “intention.” The attempt to connect planting with some memory of nature, or to exploit some emotion we feel in natural settings–THAT is the art of modern naturalism. Only the best plantsman pull that off. It is why great planting design is nostalgic. It evokes a memory or feeling of a larger natural space.


Emmon April 27, 2012 at 3:11 pm

I just blogged about Michael’s article — and ThinkinGardens — on our U.S.-based site, Many of our followers (I believe) love hearing about new garden ideas, projects, or products. This kind of discussion and debate ABOUT gardening is really different, at least to me. I’m fascinated to introduce it on our own site and see how it plays out! If any of you are interested, here’s the link to the post:


Stephen Parker April 27, 2012 at 12:18 pm

‘Naturalistic planting’, along with ‘Prairie planting’ and ‘Meadow planting’ are labels ! Labels convey an idea, a design notion and reference and as such will always prompt argument, which is fantastic to see, this has indeed been the case since the ‘Wild Gardening’ of William Robinson’s days.
I agree ‘Naturalistic planting’ is a complete contradiction in terms, and indeed I like very much your term ‘Perennial Meadows’…I normally use ‘Perennial drift planting’ although ‘New perennial’ does also convey the same ideology. However, as we are discussing parks and gardens, and planting and plant control, on whatever level, surely the term ‘naturalistic’ can only ever be used loosely ?
BUT these are labels! It is the movement itself that is important and being relatively new, it prompts label change and style change. It is a planting style, an ecologically considered style of great importance, which has largely developed from Karl Foerster,who’s garden at Potsdam, although appearing quite familiar, is very different from the masterful planting of drifts of colour and form that we see nowadays. However this is but one of the stylistic movements currently developing in contemporary garden making, so it is exciting to see debate, disagreement and argument. A good thing I would argue.


Samson Bjarnar Harðarson April 27, 2012 at 11:06 am

Thanks for this article. I have been thinking a lot about this word “Natural” garden ect. I teach students in landscape architecture and I have being using the word “Nature-like” something that imitates or takes images from nature.


Emma Reuss April 26, 2012 at 11:22 am

I enjoyed this very much – good points well put. I will think twice in future about using the ‘n’ word and try and find something better/more descriptive – I think it is probably a bit of a cop out. So must try harder. It’s amazing how often designers come up with the word to describe their planting though!


Tzipporah April 25, 2012 at 2:12 pm

All wonderful points! I can’t help but think we should be calling this kind of planting “Nature-ish,” ala Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.”


Charles Hawes April 25, 2012 at 10:30 am

A really interesting article.The pics are great, too. I presume they are Michael’s, but it should really say. And I would have liked them captioned to see where they were taken. I think the creators of the gardens deserve that acknowledgement.


annewareham April 25, 2012 at 11:36 am

Michael asked for no captions but the places and copyright are there if you mouse over the pics. Think maybe he didn’t want diversions from the text?


Charles Hawes April 25, 2012 at 11:54 am

Silly me! I should have known that you would have included this. Thanks


Recklessgardener April 25, 2012 at 7:14 am

An interesting and useful article, thought provoking to the extent that one starts to really think about the term ‘naturalistic’ . The meadow at Croome Park is one of the most lovely I have seen and I suppose very near to what nature intended. As Michael says all have human intervention and I much prefer the term meadow planting.


James Golden April 25, 2012 at 2:35 am

This is a much needed piece and I’m glad to see someone attempting to clarify the confusing and inaccurate terminology. I doubt that we’ll see much change, as we have no simple, common language and terminology to replace these terms. I’m not particularly bothered by the “naturalistic planting” usage. The word “naturalism” has been used in so many ways (consider Zola’s “naturalistic” novels of so long ago) that it’s easily adapted to describe the planting styles variously described as meadow, prairie, mixed, etc. Personally, I respond with powerful emotions to these plantings. I did when I first read (rather, saw the images in) the book you and Piet Oudolf co-authored, as well as other books by you, Noel Kingsbury, and Oudolf, and I’m surprised you don’t write more about emotion as a common element to these styles of planting because to me, that’s an essential and distinguishing characteristic. Agreed, they are not natural and, in fact, are often very theatrical and highly contrived.


annewareham April 25, 2012 at 7:45 am

James, – maybe you would write us such a piece? (ref. emotion) ed.


Benjamin Vogt April 24, 2012 at 11:00 pm

Yes to all of it. A garden can NEVER be natural / wild–otherwise it wouldn’t be a garden, which is an interpretation and an echo, a metaphor. The last paragraph is good, the concerns of strong plants growing smart and chem free. I may call my own garden prairie style, but I hope people know “style” means crude facsimile. The Lurie is, as you say, less crude and not real–as a public garden it especially can’t be “natural.” Still, by using native plants we help wildlife, save on maintenance, create year round interest, and feel something more primal stir within us. I hope the “trend” lasts.


Elspeth Briscoe April 24, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Excellent article. Good to understand more about all these in vogue terms that are bandied about.

BTW Keep an eye out for Michael’s course on Planting with Grasses coming shortly on MyGardenSchool


Emmon April 24, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I really enjoyed reading this — it got me thinking about the Lurie Garden in Chicago (which my friends and I love, by the way) versus what I THINK is perhaps a true meadow: a huge field of more-or-less untouched prairie in the arboretum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That “prairie” has an utterly unique feel about it. To me, walking through it feels like hiking through a national forest or canoeing in the Canadian boundary waters. As close to nature as I get.


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